CIUDAD JUAREZ — Chihuahua State Police officer Juan Antonio Martinez stands with a thermometer in hand, checking temperatures of people crossing the Paso del Norte Bridge.
As Mother’s Day approaches, he’s especially worried “because of their age, mothers are the most vulnerable and grandmother’s too,” he said.
Martinez is unable to social distance while holding the thermometer to the forehead of border crossers.
The temperature checks are applied to people coming from El Paso into Ciudad Juárez after walking through a “sanitizing” station, where they are covered with a fine mist.
Health authorities in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez are warning families with ties on both sides of the border to stay home this Mother’s Day to avoid spreading COVID-19. Before the pandemic, this year’s holiday was expected to be an even bigger celebration.
“We actually have a greater concern from a public health standpoint over Mother’s Day than we did Easter, because Mother’s Day in Mexico is occurring on the same day this coming Sunday,” El Paso Mayor Dee Margo said.
Mexico celebrates Mother’s Day on May 10 , which this year coincides on the same Sunday in May when the United States celebrates Mother’s Day. Large multigenerational celebrations are commonplace on the border and there is no bigger reason to celebrate than cherished mothers.
The effort to contain the coronavirus in this close-knit binational community could further unravel if those celebrations lead to more community spread as El Paso and Juárez cope with rising cases and deaths.
“We know you want to see your mamas, but we need to wait. We need to get this behind us and then we can have big family gatherings,” Margo said.
Screening crossers in Ciudad Juárez
El Pasoan Victor Marquez does not think people will heed the warnings to avoid visiting Mexico on Mother’s Day. He had crossed the border briefly to buy some medication at a Juárez pharmacy.
“We in the United States have so much liberty that people are irresponsible. They’re not responsible, especially when they come visit an elderly person,” Marquez said. He was worried about El Pasoans coming over to Juárez and infecting their grandmothers on Mother’s Day.
“I wouldn’t recommend it, no,” Marquez said. “But probably they are going to come.”
The border remains closed to all but “essential” crossers, such as people performing essential jobs or seeking health care.
Those doing health screenings at the international bridges in Juárez ask people with a temperature or symptoms whether they want to turn around and go back to El Paso, or they will be put in contact with the Chihuahua State Health authorities immediately and referred for medical care.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection refers U.S. citizens and legal residents to the Centers for Disease Control if they display symptoms of illness.
Mothers say this year is different
Some don’t have to look far for reasons to be cautious about crossing back and forth.
“In my case we won’t have a celebration. Everyone will stay home and call,” El Paso resident Mary Ramirez said.
Her son will host a video call so everyone in Juárez can wish her a happy Mother’s Day.
The 55-year old had planned to spend the day with her only daughter living in El Paso, but her 4-year-old grandson is suspected of having COVID-19, so that part of the family is self-isolating until they get the results of the test.
Silvia Arrieta, a 55-year old mother of three who lives in El Paso, usually travels to Juárez for a large party organized by her family on the Mexican side. But this year her relatives didn’t even bring up the idea of a celebration. “Those in Juárez will stay there. Those in El Paso here. It will be very different,” she said.
Estela Morales, a mother in Ciudad Juárez whose two sons live in El Paso, said they will remain separated on Mother’s Day.
“I’ll be home. There won’t be a party, just like my birthday in April,” Morales said.
Arturo Valenzuela, the Chihuahua State Health authority for Ciudad Juárez, has been warning people all week to avoid gatherings as the COVID-19 death toll reached 104. In El Paso, 23 COVID-19 deaths were reported as of Wednesday.
“Things are very delicate. The worst thing we can do is have a family gathering or relax even one day so that in 15 days you have an explosive outbreak in your family,” Valenzuela said during one of his daily virtual press conferences.
Ciudad Juárez cemeteries closed for the weekend
But both El Paso and Ciudad Juárez officials acknowledge they can do little more than urge people not to gather on Mother’s Day.
Ciudad Juárez Mayor Héctor Armando Cabada Alvídrez also can offer a personal account. “No one is exempt,” he tweeted Wednesday night in announcing he’s among those who have tested positive for COVID-19 but does not have symptoms.
The need to honor mothers extends to those who are buried in Ciudad Juárez. The city government reminded people the three public cemeteries are closed as part of the COVID-19 restrictions.
El Pasoans often pay their respects to mothers and grandmothers buried in Juárez on Mother’s Day. Patricia Venegas, an El Paso resident, has been bringing flowers to her mother’s gravesite in San Rafael cemetery in Juárez for the past 15 years.
“Even when violence was raging, we didn’t stop going. But now we can’t visit because of the coronavirus,” Venegas said.
INFO: This story is a collaboration between La Verdad Juárez and El Paso Matters. It is reported by Angela Kocherga for El Paso Matters and Martín Orquiz for La Verdad.